Citroen Xantia Activa: Forgotten Heroes

We probably don’t write about Citroën as often as we should on this website.

One of the powerhouses of the French automotive industry, Citroën has been responsible for some of the most innovative and quirky cars ever to come out of Europe.

For example, Citroën was one of the first companies to truly mass-produce front wheel drive cars, in the form of the “Traction Avant” (‘front traction’) range that launched in the mid 1930s.

Automotive history buffs will know, of course, that the Traction Avant wasn’t just pioneering in the drivetrain layout department – it was also the first mass-produced unitary body car, in an era where everybody else was doing the frame + coachwork system.

Citroen also did a great deal of pioneering work in terms of making cars with suspension that could cope with road imperfections while also providing excellent driving characteristics. 

Although Citroen cars – for some time now – have primarily been badge-engineered Peugeots (thanks to a merger with Peugeot forming the PSA Group in the mid 1970s) it’s important to remember that the marque aux chevrons has produced some truly remarkable vehicles over the years.

For example, who can forget the Citroen 2CV, one of the greatest ever triumphs of utilitarian automotive engineering:

Citroen’s merger with Peugeot led to increasingly “normal” cars, which was beneficial from a financial standpoint but, Citroen still kept some of its flair and ingenuity.

One such car was the Citroen Xantia, particular the “Activa” version (sometimes called the Vita Activa).

In this edition of Forgotten Heroes I explain why the Xantia Activa is worthy of a place in the automotive hall of heroes. 

What Is The Citroen Xantia Activa?

Basically, the Activa was an upgraded version/specification of Citroen’s Xantia.

Introduced in the early 1990s as a D segment family car, the  Xantia was available in both sedan and station wagon form.

The Citroen Xantia was available with many different specification options, ranging from a 1.6L petrol to a 3.0 V6 petrol, as well as the ubiquitously French range of supremely economical albeit agricultural diesel engines. You could have the Xantia with a five speed manual or four speed automatic gearbox.

It was a replacement for the Citroen BX, with the Xantia being somewhat more mainstream in appearance to try and win business from the likes of the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall/Opal Cavalier. The Xantia sold relatively well, particularly in the UK, where it became a popular business vehicle choice.

Buyers liked the range of engine options, generally good economy, attractive looks, and a driving experience that was better than the competition in terms of everyday drivability.  It also helped that the Xantia was very comfortable with great front and rear seats, ample room for its class and a refined ride. The Xantia was just a great package, with most complaints relating to either the function of the suspension system (more on that later) or typical French build quality niggles. 

Styled by Bertone, it is still an attractive car thirty years later, and won the title of “Europe’s Most Beautiful Car” shortly after release.

A couple of years after the launch of the Xantia, PSA Group partner Peugeot used the same floorplan and engine for the Peugeot 406. This, however, used conventional suspension (more on that later). 

While production of the regular Xantia ran from 1992 until 2002, the top-spec Activa was available from 1995 until 2001. In 1997 there was a facelift across the range for the 1998 manufacturing year. 

Activa Differences

I don’t think it would be fair to call the regular Xantia a “Forgotten Hero”, as around 1.5 million examples were built. Production also continued from 2001 to 2010 in Iran, with SAIPA building Xantias under licence.

However, the Activa was a rare car indeed with only 18,000 produced (of which approximately 2500 were the sought-after V6). 

The Activa was named after a series of Citroen concept cars from the 1980s and early 1990s, such as this futuristic looking machine:

In terms of differences between the Activa and the lesser-specification Xantias, the main changes were:

  • An upgraded “active” suspension system that was able to use computer control and hydropneumatics to effectively eliminate body roll through cornering (I discuss this in greater detail shortly)
  • Some different engine options, most notably a V6 petrol
  • Subtle boot spoiler
  • Improved front seats with superior side bolstering
  • Different alloys – wider five spokes
  • Some colour-coded trim

The Activa very much flies under the radar, with only a few subtle exterior modifications (such as the replacement of the engine type badging with ‘Activa’) giving it away. Most passers-by wouldn’t look twice when lining one up versus a regular Xantia. 

Personally, I love a subtle car. Outside of the suspension, which of course is not externally visible, it’s a relatively unremarkable car … that was part of the appeal, as buyers wanted a “Q Car” that could blend in while having a few tricks up its sleeve.

My Citroen Xantia Experience

Here’s a fun fact – I actually owned a Citroen Xantia for about 18 months. This very one pictured below:

It wasn’t the “Activa”, but was a pre-facelift 2.0i SX sedan with a manual gearbox. The SX was the mid-range trim, featuring a whopping one airbag (on the driver’s side, of course), air conditioning, a sports cloth interior and a CD player.

The reason I bought the Xantia was that my old car (my second generation Mazda Sentia) died an unfortunate death. I was starting a new job on the Monday, and so on the Sunday I needed wheels … fast.

At the time I was fairly hard-up for money, being at the early stages of my career. As luck would have it, a quick browse on TradeMe showed the Xantia for sale, and from a seller who was no more than a five minute walk down the road.

I quickly whipped down, and inspected and test drove the car. Although it wasn’t perfect, it was more than adequate. Less than an hour later I completed the transaction (driving with the previous owner to a local ATM to withdraw $1250 notes – imagine getting a serviceable, decent car for $1250 these days). 

Despite all the usual French car reliability memes, the Xantia never once let me down. It started first time, every time and I racked up thousands of kilometres of driving in it. 

It was reasonable frugal, not particularly expensive to service (although I splurged on having the hydropneumatic spheres refurbished) and rather good fun to drive with its unique suspension providing an amazing blend of comfort and handling capability.

I used to take the car to a specialist Peugeot/Citroen mechanic, and he commented that compared to similar Japanese cars of the era (think the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry etc) the Xantia was leagues ahead in terms of driving characteristics, particularly on-road composure at higher speeds. He was 100% right.

All I can say is that the base model Xantia showed me how good an Activa could be. If I had the chance, I’d have that car back in a heartbeat. 

What Makes The Xantia Activa So Special?

The Xantia, like many older Citroens, uses a “hydropneumatic” suspension system. This uses pressurized hydraulic fluid and a series of accumulator spheres to adjust the height and firmness of the suspension in real-time. This system provides improved comfort, handling and stability compared to conventional suspension systems.

The following video does a good job of explaining how “classique” Citroen suspension works:

If you’ve got a heap of time to kill, then this archived brochure from the late 1970s goes into even more detail. 

Citroen did a lot of pioneering work in the realm of hydropneumatic suspension as a result of the terrible road network in post-WW2 France. This approach to suspension allowed French motorists to enjoy a more comfortable ride on poor quality roads

Benefits & Drawbacks Of Citroen’s Suspension System  

Citroen’s hydropneumatic suspension system differs from conventional suspension systems in several ways:

  1. Active suspension: The hydropneumatic suspension system adjusts itself in real-time based on driving conditions and road surfaces, which provides a more comfortable and stable ride. Conventional suspension systems are passive and do not adjust dynamically.
  2. Hydraulic fluid: The hydropneumatic system uses pressurized hydraulic fluid, which provides a more refined and smooth ride compared to metal springs used in conventional suspension.
  3. Adjustable ride height: The hydropneumatic system allows the ride height to be adjusted, which can improve stability and handling, especially in cornering. Conventional suspension systems do not have this capability. For example, I used to be able to raise my Xantia up to go over bumps in the road, long grasses and more. When the car was turned off it would sink to its lowest ride height, and then rise from the ground on start up which was always a fun party trick. 
  4. Improved handling: The hydropneumatic system can automatically adjust the suspension stiffness depending on driving conditions, which can improve handling and reduce body roll. Conventional suspension systems do not have this capability.

Overall, the hydropneumatic suspension system provides a more advanced, comfortable, and stable ride compared to conventional suspension systems. It offers some interesting party tricks, such as consistent ride height despite vehicle loading. For example, if you load your car up with a boot full of heavy luggage, where conventionally sprung cars may sag at the back the Citroen system accommodates this and self-levels. 

The downsides are greater complexity and potential reliability concerns, as well as the requirement to periodically replace suspension spheres and fluid. Improperly maintained Citroen suspension will ride poorly (often worse than poorly maintained regular suspension) and sometimes suffer strange issues like one side or end of the car riding higher than the other. My Xantia rode immeasurably better after I had the suspension spheres and LHM fluid replaced.

Citroens with this system would typically use it to control braking (and I believe power steering) as well, meaning that if the suspension failed you might also lose braking power.

In practicality, most normal garages won’t be able to work on a Citroen suspension system and so you’ll need to learn how to do it yourself or find a specialist.  This type of suspension is also quite sensitive to correct tyre pressures and uneven tyre wear. 

All Xantias have hydropneumatic suspension, but there are a few different variants that varied in complexity and capability depending on the specification of the car you ordered.  Prior to the introduction of the Activa, the range-topping variant enjoyed the “Hydractive 2” system, which had additional spheres for more precise control and some electronic/computer input. 

The Activa Difference

Simply put, the Activa’s wizard suspension allows it to corner with minimal body roll and greater control. 

Whereas the regular Citroen suspension system in the non-Activa Xantia was more about allowing for a plush, comfortable ride that made other competing vehicles feel like ox carts, the Activa’s system was intended to improve cornering stability and reduce roll.

In theory, this cornering flatness also means superior tyre contact with the road, further enhancing grip. 

According to one test, the Xantia Activa still holds the record for fastest speed achieved through the moose test manoeuvre, beating out cars like the Porsche GT3 RS. This video shows various clips of the Activa’s legendary flat-handling capabilities in action:

Contemporaneous testing found the Activa capable of mixing with the likes of the Honda NSX and Ferrari 512 in terms of ability to power through corners in a flat, stable fashion.

The normal Xantia was better than most conventionally-sprung cars at minimising body roll through corners, and the Activa dialled that capability up to 11 with its “SC.CAR” system that combined an improved version of the top-spec Hydractive 2 hydropneumatic suspension with the addition of computer-controlled active anti-roll bars, as well as hydraulic rams that could adjust the height of the roll bars.

At the time of launch, the Activa was pitched as one of the first production cars with active anti-roll technology, as advertised as the “party piece” of the car (e.g. in this IMP Hot Cars brochure)

Click to expand

At a simple level, the Activa anti-roll system works as follows:

  • As the driver enters a bend, the anti-roll bars stiffen substantially 
  • As the car drives through the bend (and the cornering motion is sustained) sensors and a computer control use hydraulic rams to adjust the anti-roll bars to eliminate body roll

These days, this isn’t exactly the most impressive technology … but at the time it was a game changer. 

If you’d like to understand more about the anti-roll SC.CAR system, Hydractive 2 and other versions of Citroen’s suspension, then this article about Citroen hydropneumatics is incredibly informative and does a better job at explaining things than I ever could (albeit it is rather technical). 

Sporting Pretensions 

Don’t think for a second that the Xantia Activa is the last word in sporting prowess; contemporary reviews tended to agree that although the Activa was unparalleled in its ability to remain as flat as a pancake through the bends, the chassis couldn’t necessarily keep pace with the capability of the suspension.

Furthermore, the Activa’s didn’t exactly set the world on fire in the speed department.

The Activa specification could be optioned with a a few different engines, but the most common seems to have been a 2.0 l0w pressure turbo that was built for torque and smooth driving rather than outright acceleration. With just 150bhp, the performance credentials of this engine couldn’t keep up with the suspension.

Citroen did introduce a 2.9 (often referred to as 3.0) V6, which bumped power up closer to 200hp. However, the best you could get in terms of a 0-60mph/180kph time was around 8 seconds. The handling capabilities and otherworldly ability to stay flat in a corner are what you are really paying for, along with the superb comfort and everyday practicality. 

Should You Buy A Citroen Xantia Activa?

Yes, yes you should. 

Not because it is the last word in performance (as mentioned above) but because it represents such an interesting piece of automotive history and is a true curios.

We enthusiasts have a duty to keep history alive, and so even if the Activa wasn’t the greatest car in the world it is deserving of preservation and attention. 

The Xantia Activa is also so rare now, that he (or she) who is blessed by the opportunity to purchase one should not think the chance may arise again. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, as the saying goes.

If you see one, buy one … end of story, or be stuck with a lifetime of automotive regret. 

I should know – several years ago, not long after I had sold my budget Xantia, a gentleman in another city was selling one of the only Activas in New Zealand. It was a 2.0 turbo in dark green. By all accounts it appeared to be in mint condition, with modest mileage and a good service book. If I recall, he was asking around $7000 NZD, and I was too gun-shy to pull the trigger on a car of that value as a long distance purchase. For shame, as the opportunity will almost certainly never present itself ever again. 

If you do find an Activa for sale, your biggest issue in keeping it going is likely to be a combination of poor parts availability and lack of specialist knowledge. Many examples seem to have met an untimely end because it became too difficult and/or expensive to maintain.

If you can’t find an Activa but the opportunity to purchase a good, normal Xantia presents itself, then consider taking the plunge … if only so you can say you’ve owned a car with Citroen’s brilliant (albeit now retired) suspension system. 

Trick suspension is now far more ubiquitous, particularly thanks to the surge in popularity of luxury SUVs from the early 2000s onwards. However, let’s give credit where credit is due – Citroen was one of the true pioneers in terms of trying to develop a better suspension system.

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